Rating Texas’ Police-Worn Camera Policies

October 26, 2016 by

As body-worn cameras gain popularity among local law enforcement agencies in Texas, municipalities struggle to keep pace with the policies regarding their use.

There are few willing to argue against the use of the cameras because having objective documentation of incidents is best for officers and for citizens. But, there is a lot of disagreement surrounding usage, transparency, and storage. The success of police cameras is dependent on the policy surrounding them.

The Leadership Conference, a civil rights activists group, along with Upturn, a technology consulting firm,  scored 50 major jurisdictions’ policies on police cameras. The group said, “[w]ithout carefully crafted policy safeguards in place, there is a real risk that these new devices could become instruments of injustice, rather than tools for accountability.”

The scorecards assess body-worn camera policies in eight areas: policy available, officer discretion, personal privacy, officer review, footage retention, footage misuse, footage access, and biometric use.

Out of the 50 major cities, five covered in the assessment are in Texas: Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. Out of the Texas cities, the scorecard indicates that only San Antonio receives more than $500,000 in grant funding from the Department of Justice to implement the program.

According to the study, when considering “policy availability” to the public, only Austin and Houston were deemed satisfactory since both departments make their policy readily available online and the others did not.

Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio pass the assessment’s “officer discretion” category. Their policies clearly dictate when an officer must start to record, and provides concrete justifications for failure to record. Austin and Forth Worth do dictate when recording must happen, but fail to provide solid justifications for not recording.

No Texas city scored well on “personal privacy.” While the policies of every city, except Fort Worth, mentions the importance of personal privacy, they either offer vague guidance on when recording should stop (i.e. In someone’s house) or does not require informed consent from vulnerable individuals. The scorecard says that Fort Worth doesn’t address personal privacy at all in their policy.

All of the cities failed the report’s “officer review” section which states, “the policy allows – or even encourages – officers to review relevant footage before filing a written report or statement.” Some argue that this policy should maintain the same because minute details may be forgotten when trying to recall a highly tense situation. Others say previewing footage offers a chance for officers to adjust their recount of events to match the footage.

Austin and San Antonio were the only two cities to fail the “footage retention” policy guidelines. The report says that the department either doesn’t require the deletion of unflagged footage, or they were not able to easily determine if that was a part of the policy. To pass, policies must require deleting unflagged footage within six months.

When it comes to “footage misuse and access”, the study says a good policy should explicitly prohibit footage tampering and unauthorized access. It also requires all access to recorded footage be logged and audited. No Texas city passed this test, but Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio were marked as “partially satisfies requirements,” because their policies prohibit footage tampering and unauthorized access, but does not indicate that all access be logged and audited.

None of the five city policies expressly allow individuals filing police misconduct complaints to view relevant footage, nor do they regulate the use of facial recognition software, for which the scorecard gives them all a failing grade.

When looking at the overall scoring it seems that, in the Lone Star State, Houston currently has the most accountable and transparent policy. Every department has room for improvements, but Texas cities seemed to do better than most on the list.


About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.